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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Shi'ite Faithful Conclude Karbala Pilgrimage Amid Anti-U.S. Sentiments

  • Zamira Eshanova

Karbala, Iraq; 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova is in Karbala, Iraq, one of the holy cities for Shi'ite Muslims where today some 1 million faithful concluded a long-outlawed pilgrimage. Today, there was a mass prayer at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom 14 centuries ago of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Question: What happened today in Karbala?

Eshanova: Today was the climax for the Shi'ite pilgrimage here in Karbala. Today by noon they finished their three days of marching and praying and their rituals and after 1 p.m. o'clock local time the crowd is dispersed and they are going back home. So today was the climax of the pilgrimage.

Question: What were you able to see?

Eshanova: I was standing on the roof of the hotel that was next to the entrance to the main mosque of Karbala, which is Imam Hussein's shrine and this main event took place in this shrine. So there were more than a million people, maybe 1.5 million people, here today. Everybody was heading to this mosque, to Imam Hussein's shrine, and so all the streets of Karbala which lead to this mosque were full of pilgrims who were chanting, who were reciting the history of Hussein through songs, through poetry, and they were carrying his portrait. And these people were clapping their chests, women were beating their foreheads. So this was the ritual.

And they entered this mosque and they started kissing the entrance door, others were kissing the floor of the mosque, and then they did this kind of rituals for three days and several times they did the same things. They were circling around this mosque and they were entering the mosque and they were kissing and this was the ritual here today.

Question: Can you describe the mood of the pilgrims?

Eshanova: I can describe the overall mood as happiness and a kind of euphoria here. This was the first time in 30 years they can do this freely and without any pressure from the government, any fear from the government. And they were talking to the foreign journalists and they were describing that they are very, very happy. But at the same time, there are some groups who are organizing marches through Karbala around the mosque with chanting, with billboards that say, "No to America," "No to Israel," "No to military government," but "Yes to Islam," "Yes to democratic people's government," "Yes to Iraqi government." So there was a kind of politicized mood here. But the overall mood I can say is very happy.

Question: What are the pilgrims saying about the presence of coalition troops in Iraq?

Eshanova: They say that they appreciate, they thank the coalition forces for what they've done, that Saddam is gone. But at the same time, everybody adds that they would love to see coalition forces leave Iraq as soon as possible and to rule the country by Iraqis themselves.

Question: Has there been any violence or disturbances?

Eshanova: At the beginning, you can see that this was a kind of chaotic, not-so-well-organized thing. Locals they tried to do something. There were volunteers who tried to establish order here. But at the same time there were no big problems with order.

Question: Is there a presence of U.S. troops in the city?

Eshanova: I've seen U.S. troops, a huge and long convoy on the way to Karbala, which was 50 kilometers away from Karbala. They were blocking the highway, and people who were coming to this pilgrimage, they were very annoyed by this move. But in and around Karbala, I haven't seen any U.S. troops. What I've seen is a handful, maybe a maximum 10 people from Ahmad Chalabi's Free Iraqi forces. Only 10 people at the entrance to Karbala trying to control the traffic. That's it. Otherwise, there is no organized police or security or army forces here in Karbala.

Question: What is the humanitarian situation like in Karbala?

Eshanova: I think it's not good, and they're not receiving aid because people in the restaurants and cafes were telling us not to drink any water because we have a problem with the water. We have a shortage of drinking water here. So there is a problem, and I haven't seen any humanitarian agencies or aid or any trucks. So even in Baghdad you couldn't see any aid, so Karbala is a low-profile city to bring this aid, I guess. No sign of this humanitarian aid.

But on the way to Karbala, I've seen people selling a lot of sugar or flour, and I've learned that this was humanitarian aid to Iraqi people and somehow this aid ended up in the hands of merchants who are selling it now.

Question: What is the situation with water, electricity, and food in the capital, Baghdad?

Eshanova: Good news in Baghdad. Yesterday, some central districts of Baghdad got electricity for the first time after the war. And this is a small district in Baghdad, and it was celebrated by a lot of machine-gun firing and the people were very happy. But this is not in whole city, only in some districts. That is why I think the mood is now a little bit improving and people are getting back to normal life and that there is some process under way to get life in Baghdad back to normal.

But at the same time, there is a kind of chaos. People don't know who is in charge and all these parties -- Ahmad Chalabi's party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and other Kurdish groups and newborn Islamic parties and communist parties -- are taking whatever buildings they can and they are establishing their headquarters, and there is a kind of chaos. Otherwise, life is somehow normalizing now. New and more hotels and shops and restaurants are opening.